Cage after Cage
Percussionist Matthias Kaul comes at Cage from a background in rock and jazz drumming, and it shows in his sense of freedom, his agency and in the range of sounds – more visceral than many interpreters dare. Cage often leaves instrumentation up to the performer and Kaul tends towards the gentle, mellow, quirky and mysterious. He keeps his touch light and his timbres tactile. He has a knack for making percussion instruments sound like human voices, which can be uncanny, or like natural elements, which can be evocative and pictorial. In the booklet-notes he admits to stretching Cageian ‘legality’, but I like it.
This disc includes two versions of Composed Improvisation. The first, for solo snare drum, works as an opener, clearing the ears with poised interplay of silence and delicate textures, while the second, for one-sided drums, makes a pivot point that deepens, broadens and darkens the palette. The placement of their different characters hints at Kaul’s feel for pacing – in other words, he conceived this collection as an album that rewards being listening to in a single sitting.
Variations I is a work from 1958 in classical theme-and-variation form. The ‘theme’ consists of six pieces of paper marked with dots and lines, and to create the variations the player shuffles those pages around and plays the results. In Kaul’s hands it becomes 15 minutes of lively, intricate dialogue on African mbira and Caribbean steel drums. Inlets is a cheerful, gurgling rhapsody of conch shells filled with water. Child of Tree is a symphony for cactus, poinciana seed-rattle, apple, leaves and wooden sticks – instruments with which Kaul conjures the sound of wind, fire and snoring. It’s so vivid that it’s almost narrative.
The biggest and most clearly instructed piece is 27'10.554" (yep, guess the duration), whose score is divvied up into instrumental groups of wood, metal, skin and ‘other’. A radio counts as one of those ‘others’, which allows for fun fragments of pop songs to filter into the mix. Kaul’s stop-start performance is eclectic, inventive and astute, and crucially leaves room for the daftness of kazoos and glitches as well as the reverence of gongs and, of course, silence.